Austen Ivereigh: “Pope Francis has evangelized the global Church from Latin America”

British journalist, writer and historian austen ivereigh (Guildford, 1966) is one of the leading experts on the Pope Francisco.

Author of a fundamental biography on Jorge Bergoglio (the great reformer2015) and an in-depth analysis of the pontificate (wounded shepherd2019), Ivereigh believes that Francisco He achieved an unprecedented transformation of the ecclesial institution, with changes that are here to stay.

“The conversion of the Church has been the essence of his pontificate,” he tells infobae from the Oxford Universitywhere he works as a professor of Contemporary Church History.

The key word, which comes up again and again throughout the conversation, is “synodality”: the consultation process driven by Francisco to make the Church more inclusive, participatory and responsive to real world problems. “It is about moving from a self-referential Church, incapable of evangelizing, to one that went out to the peripheries to connect with specific people,” she explains.

—Why did you define Francisco as a “wounded Pastor”?

—When I wrote the book, in 2019, the Church was going through a very difficult year. The clergy sexual abuse crisis was at the center of the news. Was a Annus horribilis for the Church and for the Pope. However, Francis was taking advantage of this crisis to better define the path of conversion and purification of the Church. He began to look and tend to the wounds. The wounds of the world, of the victims and of a Church that had failed.

How was this transformation?

—Francis invited the Church to open itself to the grace of conversion. The conversion of the Church has been the essence of his pontificate. Going from a self-referential Church, incapable of evangelizing, to one that went out to the peripheries to connect with specific people. This path of conversion requires humiliation, which for Francis is a grace because it leads to humility.

—What would you say was the most important reform carried out in these 10 years of pontificate?

—The main reform has been the change in the internal culture of the Church. This was done through synodality. There was an opening in two ways: on the one hand, it sought to put the Holy Spirit back as the main agent of the Church. And on the other, it sought to reconnect the institution with the faithful people to create a Church of the people of God, as defined in the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Francis greets people as he attends the weekly general audience in the Vatican's St. Peter's Square, March 8, 2023. (REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane)
Pope Francis greets people as he attends the weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, March 8, 2023. (REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane) (GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/)

What phase is the reform process in now?

I think it’s “mission accomplished”. The public face of the Church is very different from that of ten years ago. It is almost another Church. I remember the Church of 2012: the scandals, the corruption, the self-referentiality, the moralism. There was a problem in the authority of the Church itself. In this sense, the reform of the authority and government of the Church carried out by the Pope has been very effective. I am not saying it: it is the bishops who go to Rome who say that the Roman Curia no longer speaks to them as if they were altar boys. There is no longer a barrier between them and the pope. The Pope, with his way of acting, has opened the channels of communication. In this the success has been great.

What task would you say remains pending?

—The reception of this change of culture at the local level of the parishes. At least in the northern hemisphere, Francis’ reform has stopped halfway. He is also sure to have a visit to Russia and China pending.

—Some critics see the opening promoted by Francisco as a weakness. Because?

—It is the problem of the corporatization of the Church. When the Church becomes a kind of corporation, obsessed with its own success, with its own image. Anything that suggests weakness is rejected. However, for the Pope, humility has been the main grace that God has offered to the Church at this time. For him, in a world dominated by the abuse of power, it is increasingly important that the Church preach and teach from a position of humility for her own credibility.

—The reforms also caused great resistance in some conservative sectors.

—The resistance is proof of the effectiveness of the reform, in the sense that there are people who feel very threatened by the pontificate. Threatened because they fear they are going to lose something.

-Who are they?

—People like the cardinal [Gerhard Ludwig] Müller or the now late Cardinal [George] Pell contest the authority of the pope. Deep down they are saying: ‘He has no right to rule the Church, we are the ones who should be in charge.’ It is the same thing that happened with Jesus and the Pharisees. There is also the resistance of the so-called “cultural warriors”, who position themselves against everything that liberal modernity represents. They regret that the pope has sought a church of dialogue, of fraternity. They think that the Church should be a kind of refuge against the evils of modernity.

Cardinal Gerhard Muller is one of the pope's opponents (Getty)
Cardinal Gerhard Muller is one of the pope’s opponents (Getty) (Getty Images /)

—How influential are the opposition sectors?

They are minority groups. It is about certain elites. In the United States they proliferate because there will always be some millionaire who can finance a website for them. However, when I go to the parishes in the United States, they are all with him, with the Pope.

—Francisco has also been accused of being a “populist.”

—The accusation of the liberal or neoliberal sectors against Francisco has always been that he is a populist. On the other hand, the criticism of the populists is that he is a globalist and a liberal. Those critiques reveal a lot about the critics’ positions and say very little about Francis’s position. That he is not a liberal or a populist. In fact, this pope has made the most interesting and sophisticated critique of populism that almost anyone in the world has made, which is the encyclical Fratelli Tutti. There he criticizes the way in which populism exploits the people, because it is a policy always for and in the name of the people, but never with the people. And politically, it seems to me that what Francis has taken has been two very interesting steps, novel in terms of the pontificate. That it has been embracing the movements of the popular sectors.

—What is the relationship of the Pope with the popular movements?

—in in the book let’s dream together [un libro-entrevista de Ivereigh a Francisco], the Pope clearly says that he wants every diocese to have a relationship with this type of movement. His look is that there is an awakening from the town. The people are beginning to assume responsibility for the future, because they have realized that everything cannot be left in the hands of the elites. That liberal, technocratic democracy is incapable of responding to their demands. In 2014, in his speech to popular movements, Francisco spoke of a movement that goes beyond the formal limits of democracy, with the participation of the people in the decisions that affect them. And it is something that is being promoted at a general level but also within the Church. In the Synod on Synodality, the faithful people were not consulted by the hierarchy, but were asked to meet, to hold face-to-face assemblies, in parishes, throughout the world. An incredible, spectacular thing. We don’t know how many participated, but they are unprecedented numbers. That trust in the people has been the great contribution of this pope. Reconnect the institution with the faith of the simple people.

Catholic delegates participate in a prayer service at a pre-synodal assembly in the ruins of the Clonmacnoise monastery, Ireland (REUTERS / Clodagh Kilcoyne)
Catholic delegates participate in a prayer service at a pre-synodal assembly in the ruins of the Clonmacnoise monastery, Ireland (REUTERS / Clodagh Kilcoyne) (CLODAGH KILCOYNE /)

—Two central themes, from the beginning of the Pontificate, were integral ecology and the “culture of discarding”. What novelty do they represent?

—The great awakening of the Pope was the General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops in 2007. He himself has described how he was “radicalized”, so to speak. He awakened his conscience by realizing the impact that globalization had had on the environment, not only natural, but also human. From the destruction of the community and culture, as a result of extractivism. He then realized that the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor were basically the same cry. There he developed his very important narrative about throwaway culture and the importance of integral ecology. In this sense, I believe that the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’: On Caring for the Common Home was the most important and profound Catholic social teaching or advance since Leo XIII’s first great social encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. It was a paradigm shift and one of the fundamental moments of this pontificate.

—How does the figure of Francis emerge in the current international context, in the face of issues such as the war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, growing inequalities?

I can’t think of any other figure on a world scale who has the moral authority and presence that he has on all these issues. The fact that many people care so much about his position, for example on Ukraine, is in itself a sign of the significance of that presence. Sure, of course he’s been heavily criticized. Even so, all the surveys and surveys show that the people, not only the faithful Catholic people, but also the people in general, see him as a figure of high moral authority at this time.

What role does Latin America play in the Pope’s vision?

—The Pope has evangelized the global Church from Latin America. He defines it as “the little wind from the south”. He traveled throughout almost the entire region and those trips have been among the most important that he has made. The messages that he has launched from there have been of the utmost importance. Because the Latin American Church already has those characteristics that are so lacking in the Church in the northern hemisphere.

—However, in the region, Catholics are decreasing and evangelical cults are growing. How is this challenge being addressed?

—Regarding the growth of Evangelicals and Pentecostals, Francisco’s path has been a path of dialogue and joint work, something that Bergoglio had already done in Buenos Aires. Of all the popes, he would say that he is the first pope to have built bridges with the Pentecostal and evangelical world. Before Francis, the Vatican was not very interested in this dialogue, partly because of the fragmentation of those churches, which did not have central authorities.

—How do you interpret the fact that Francisco continues without traveling to Argentina?

—They have given me many explanations throughout this pontificate. But I dare not say what is the main reason. He recently said that he does not rule out traveling, that it is still possible. He always says that to travel the pastoral needs of the countries are the most important. And the Argentine church is in a very healthy position compared to many other churches. But I don’t know if that’s the whole truth.

—Do you think that, when the time comes, Francis will make the same decision as Benedict XVI?

—He has always said that Benedict’s decision has changed the papacy, in the sense that each pope now has the possibility of resigning if he feels that he physically cannot take it anymore. However, he also said that for him the mission of the pope is ad vitam. And she takes it seriously. Because the fact that the position is for life serves to provide stability and avoid politicking that can weaken the institution. He sees resignation as a door that he can always open, but I don’t see that he intends to open it, at least for now.

Pope Francis - AP Interview
Pope Francis, left, embraces Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, at the Vatican, June 28, 2017. (L’Osservatore Romano/AP, File)

—Francis named most of the current members of the College of Cardinals. Were they appointments designed so that a pope emerges from the next Conclave to continue and consolidate the vision of Francis?

—The appointments do not have the intention of making a College of Cardinals in the image and likeness of the pope. Francis is not looking for another pope like him. However, the appointments have obeyed a logic to ensure that in the next Conclave there is an authentic discernment of the needs of the world and the needs of the church. And that the voice of the peripheries be included in that discernment. What is original and peculiar about Francis’ appointments is that he included figures from the margins of the Church, from places where there is a very low population of Catholics or a lot of interreligious tension, where there is a lot of suffering. And there is another important element: the next Conclave, whenever it is, will take place with the Synod on Synodality as the backdrop. For the first time in history the cardinals will meet in Conclave having discussed much of what the Spirit is saying to the Church through this unprecedented assembly of the global people of god. This will have to influence the choice in a positive way.

Keep reading:

Francis, the pontiff who proclaimed the most saints: from a historic double papal canonization to 813 martyrs at the same time

20 photos of the day Bergoglio was elected Pope: the vigil in Saint Peter’s Square and the conclave that consecrated him

Francisco: from the call to the priesthood in the church of Flores to become the first Jesuit Pope